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Spotlight Report

Court tells diocese to release abuse files

Plaintiffs seek to show a pattern of protection

By Ralph Ranalli, Globe Staff, 9/26/2002

A Superior Court judge has ordered the Archdiocese of Boston to turn over 50 years' worth of records containing all ''credible claims'' of sexual misconduct against priests to alleged victims of abuse, records that lawyers for the victims say will offer an unprecedented and comprehensive look at the church's practices and policies on dealing with abuse charges.

In a ruling unveiled yesterday, Suffolk Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney ordered lawyers for the archdiocese to turn over records of how it handled claims from parishioners against 87 priests, 15 of whom are now dead.

In the handwritten one-paragraph ruling, Sweeney said only that the requested information is not privileged and is relevant to the plaintiffs' claims.

Lawyers for victims said the records are substantially the same ones referred to state Attorney General Thomas Reilly's office and five Massachusetts district attorneys for possible prosecution earlier this year. Due to their age - some date to the 1950s - and the statute of limitations for criminal sexual abuse cases, the records have resulted in only a handful of prosecutions.

Yet lawyers suing the archdiocese in civil court called Sweeney's ruling a huge breakthough, saying the records will help them prove their core allegation against Cardinal Bernard F. Law and the archdiocese: that the church had a de facto policy in abuse cases of protecting the church's reputation at all costs, regardless of the damage to children.

''We have been on the outer fringes of discovering what happened here in Boston and now we are going to be right at the core,'' said Boston lawyer Roderick MacLeish Jr., who filed the motion in a case brought against the archdiocese by alleged victims of the Rev. Paul Shanley. ''This is the first time anywhere in the country that anyone has been able to get files on a diocese-wide basis.''

Boston attorney Jeffrey Newman, who like MacLeish represents scores of alleged victims of sexual abuse by priests, said the ruling ''is what we've been waiting for.''

''Up to now, it's almost like we've been fighting a war without ammunition,'' Newman said. ''We saw the tip. Now we get to see the rest of the iceberg ... it is a very significant opinion.''

The Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, a spokesman for the archdiocese, declined to comment on the matter yesterday, saying that church officials had yet to receive Sweeney's order, which was issued Monday and mailed to the parties in the case. ''Once our lawyers have had a chance to review it and to speak to the cardinal and others, then we will make a decision on whether it will be appealed,'' Coyne said.

MacLeish said yesterday that the records involved in the decision consist of thousands of pages of documents that include allegations of abuse against 87 priests deemed ''credible'' by church officials, their evaluation of the allegations, and their response, including whether accused priests were sent for treatment and whether they were reassigned to other parishes after complaints surfaced.

Much of the furor attached to the national scandal of sexual abuse in the church has resulted from revelations that Law and other church leaders dealt with allegations of child molestation by simply shuffling priests from one parish to another, where they continued to abuse children.

MacLeish said the records will probably contain the names of more than 40 priests who are currently not known to civil lawyers representing alleged victims of abusive priests.

However, lawyers said they did not expect Sweeney's order to result in a flood of new plaintiffs. The widespread publicity of the abuse scandal, they say, has already flushed out most of the victims willing to come forward.

The lawyers said the documents would be most helpful to clients with existing claims by allowing their attorneys to comprehensively define the church's policies and practices in handling claims of abuse.

Carmen Durso, a Boston attorney who represents 30 alleged victims from within the Archdiocese of Boston, said the release of thousands of new documents will help victims who have had difficulty obtaining records from the church.

''Short of having a Deep Throat in the chancery, there is no way other than this to know what documents really exist that could be turned over,'' he said.

MacLeish, meanwhile, said he also expected the ruling to speed settlements between victims and the church. Last week, Sweeney approved a $10 million settlement between the archdiocese and 86 victims of defrocked priest John J. Geoghan, but MacLeish said many other victims have been reluctant to settle their cases without an accounting from church officials of the full scope and extent of sexual abuse by priests. ''This has been a big impediment toward settlement,'' he said. ''People don't want to be accused of taking the money and running without getting to the truth. This gets to the truth.''

Sweeney's ruling was praised yesterday by advocates for victims. ''I've been very impressed with Judge Sweeney,'' said Phil Saviano, New England director for the Suvivors Network of those Abused by Priests. ''This is another example of how she has been concerned with getting the truth out there and exposing what has gone on in the church.''

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 9/26/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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